Do journalists have more rights than you do? Do you even know for sure what makes someone a journalist? And does the U.S. government have any business defining who’s a journalist and who’s not?
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has just inserted language into a bill that would limit who gets privileges as a journalist under the First Amendment. It would declare that those who get paid to report on the news are journalists, but those who don’t get paid for it aren’t journalists. She thinks that being a journalist is a special privilege (video). Under her rules, bloggers and “citizen journalists” aren’t journalists at all. This is wrong for journalism. It’s wrong for the law. But most importantly, it’s wrong for the average American.
How did we get to this point? Is Feinstein just an evil fascist, as Matt Drudge suggested about her on this issue? I don’t think so. She’s wrong, but it helps to understand what the underlying issues are.
In this country, we have freedom of the press because it’s mentioned in the First Amendment to the Constitution. (I’m not even going to get into the fact that we should have the right even without it being mentioned, because the government is given no power to taken that freedom away. I’m ignoring that because dealing with what the Constitution originally meant has nothing to do with how the law currently works here.) Because the First Amendment specifically says that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…,” the media in this country have traditionally enjoyed a wide degree of freedom.
For a long time, journalists have argued that if they are required to reveal their sources of information — in court or in congressional hearings, for instance — it would have an impact on freedom of the press. If they could be forced to share such information, fewer people would give them information. So some states have enacted what are called “shield laws,” which shield journalists from having to reveal their sources. In this way, it gives media people a legal right that the rest of us don’t have.
Now journalists and some in Congress want a national shield law, which would protect reporters from having to reveal sources to courts or politicians. Here’s where it gets slippery.
Feinstein says that she’s willing to let “legitimate” journalists have this additional protection, but she’s not willing to go along with it if the same rights apply to writers, producers or bloggers who aren’t part of the traditional media. She thinks that if you’re not being paid for what you do, you shouldn’t have the same rights. And she’s successfully gotten that idea inserted into the Senate bill.
I’m opposed to the bill, but I see two layers of potential “badness” to it.
First, why should people working for corporate news operations have rights that aren’t also allowed for those who are solo operations or who are volunteers with activist groups? I can’t see any legal or moral justification for that. But the members of the journalist groups who want the shield law passed all work for big newspaper and television companies that pay them for their work, so this law would suit their purposes.
They have no reason to fight for the writers and producers who aren’t among their ranks. But why should the law treat those groups differently? If a person gets information about wrongdoing at his local government and writes an article about it on his blog, shouldn’t he be entitled to the same protection as the people from CNN and the Washington Post?
Second, I’m not sure that I can support shield laws in the first place. I like the idea of a journalist not having to reveal his sources — and I admire a reporter who’s willing to go to jail to protect his sources — but I don’t see why a paid journalist should have more rights than anyone else has.
Let’s say that you’re not a journalist or writer of any sort. But let’s say that you uncovered information about government wrongdoing and you decided that the public needed to see it. So you took steps to make sure that copies of the information got into the hands of other people in your area. Let’s say that the local government found out who released the information and took you to court — for theft of the information or whatever charge a prosecutor could cook up. Is it right that a paid journalist could refuse to testify and walk away, but you could be forced to testify or you’d be sent to jail?
Freedom of the press doesn’t just apply to those who are paid reporters. It also applies to bloggers and writers and independent producers of all sorts. But it also applies to everyone else. The freedom belongs to all of us.
If anybody can refuse to tell where he got information, we all should be able to. Otherwise, we’ve reached the point of de facto press licensing by government fiat.
I’m opposed to Feinstein’s plan to exclude bloggers, but I’m also against any law that suggests that the rest of us don’t have exactly the same rights that any reporter does.